Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Early History of The Contortions #2

Early History of The Contortions #1 (Introduction)

The actual genesis of The Contortions is well-covered in the Marc Masters and Thurston Moore/Byron Coley books, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking in depth about it. If you would like to read my own 2002 liner notes discussing some of the finer points of this topic, click here. Beware though . . . spoiler alert!

James Chance and Lydia Lunch: pre-Teenage Jesus
from the 1977 film "Punking Out"

James Chance moved from Brookfield, Wisconsin around 1976 to crack the free jazz "loft" scene happening in New York City. He soon ran into a teen runaway from Rochester, New York named Lydia Lunch and the two became friends. They started a band called The Scabs. The Scabs morphed into Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Lydia thought James was too interactive with the audience and kicked him out of the group. James started his own band, The Contortions, soon after. His earliest lineup consisted included British artist James Nares on guitar, drummer Stephen Moses (who appeared with James and David Hofstra in an early free-jazz combo called Flaming Youth) and Anne DeLeon on synthesizer. It's messy - a lot of people came and went pretty quickly - but soon Chicago-bred artist Pat Place was added to the group on slide guitar because she had good hair. Adele Bertei, hailing from Cleveland, was hanging around and got drafted on organ. Japanese rocker Reck quit Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and defected into the Contortions ranks, bringing with him, his drummer friend Chiko Hige. Thusly, our saga begins . . .

12.4.1977 – Max’s Kansas City, New York, NY

1. I Don’t Want To Be Happy   2. Roving Eye  3. Dish It Out  4. My Infatuation  5 Jaded  6. Bedroom Athlete

James Chance (voc, as), James Nares (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), Adele Bertei (organ), Reck (bass), Chiko Hige (drums)
 (Ostensibly) the first Contortions gig opens with a brutal version of “I Don’t Want to Be Happy” which is the polar opposite arrangement of the laid-back, discofied version which would finally appear on 1979’s “Buy Contortions” LP (ZE Records). Chiko Hige’s tumbling, powerful tom-tom drumming bolsters the noise from the guitars and organ, supporting James’ frenzied vocal outbursts. “Roving Eye” also appears here in a similar form underpinned by a savage Bo Diddley-type rhythmic figure, far removed from the later late-60s-James-Brown-style funk arrangement which made the album. The middle of the song here turns into a sort of jazz-swing parody with a saxophone solo. James Nares’ guitar tone is particularly brittle on this recording – it has been purported by several sources that he played some sort of “plastic” guitar. I am not sure exactly what this entails. On this early version of the "No New York" track “Dish It Out”, the drumming is a stomping four-on-the-floor beat instead of the more refined backbeat which appears on the record. Otherwise it is similar in form. Pat Place mentioned to me that she thought there was an existing film of this gig and that her hands were completely bloody by the end of the show from playing guitar. “My Infatuation” would remain very similar in arrangement throughout James’ career, however, the brash amateurism of James Nares and Pat Place on guitar and Adele Bertei on Acetone organ add an extra layer of filth here which may never have been equaled. Luckily the Japanese rhythm section is rock solid and they helped steer this virgin voyage towards success. According to many sources, including an issue of New York Rocker magazine, George Scott joined the band in December 1977, so it might be safe to assume this is Reck’s only performance with the band. He was previously a member of the original line up of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks for most of the second half of 1977 (along with James Chance, who left before him in September 1977). The turgid, monotonous song “Jaded” is performed here in a similar arrangement to how it would appear on “No New York”. This song was also played in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks when James was still a member. The set closes with a version of “Bedroom Athlete”, which is performed in this early, crude manner until it is finally revamped before the recording of “BUY”. This performance has similar tribal drumming like much of the rest of the set. The middle 5/4 section is later refined beyond the rough pileup of noise it sounds like here. The other acts on this bill included Rudolph Grey and Von LMO’s notorious, short-lived combo Red Transistor as well as Mimi and the Dreamboats (featuring future Mofungo members and a very young Jim Sclavunos).


2.4.1978 – CBGBs, New York, NY
Set One:

1. I Don’t Want To Be Happy   2. My Infatuation   3. Dish It Out   4. Jaded   5. Throw Me Away  6. Roving Eye   7. Twice Removed   8. Contort Yourself

Set Two:
1. Intro   2. I Don’t Want To Be Happy   3. My Infatuation   4. Dish It Out   5. Twice Removed   6. Bedroom Athlete   7. Jaded   8. Roving Eye  9. Contort Yourself  10. Throw Me Away

James Chance (voc, as), James Nares (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), Adele Bertei (organ), George Scott (bass), Chiko Hige (drums)

The band more than likely played at least two more shows between this one and the debut (ads for 1.9.1978 at Max’s Kansas City with Teenage Jesus and The Jerks and 1.15.1978 at CBGB’s with The Sorrows appeared in the Village Voice pages). In the Village Voice the listing for a run of shows between Thursday and Saturday April 2-4, 1978 lists Suicide, The Fleshtones and Contortions as the attractions. On all three dates, Suicide definitely appear to have played two sets on each night as well as the Contortions. New bassist George Scott previously did time in the proto-punk group Jack Ruby before joining up with Chance and co. It is obvious that Chiko Hige is still on drums here. Adele’s scathing organ clusters and Pat Place’s rubbery slide guitar are more prevalent on this recording than on the 12.4.1977 tape. The song arrangements are similar to the ones from the first gig, but are performed here slightly faster in tempo and with more confidence. There’s a little sax and drum tag added to the beginning of “Dish It Out” which doesn’t appear elsewhere. The song “Throw Me Away” makes an early appearance here, in a more basic form than the lighter, disco version on “BUY”. The verses feature more of Chiko’s tom patterns in lieu of the James Brown-esqe drumming on the album. The raging middle section featuring a white-hot saxophone is completely different than the middle of the final version. Also prominent is a melodic organ part which didn’t make the album version. There’s a pretty large and enthusiastic crowd at this show. The crawling jazz-swing of “Twice Removed” has been added to the set and sounds largely like it always would. The first set ends with an embryonic version of “Contort Yourself” and James, who hasn’t said much during the set, introduces It in a tone dripping with contempt: “In case you didn’t know it, we’re the Contortions and this is the music we contort ourselves with, so stick it up your ass!” The tempo is much slower than it would eventually stabilize at, and the performance drags on for more than seven minutes. There’s lots of wild guitar noise however. The second set opens with James responding to a heckler: “Stick a firecracker up your ass, jerk!” There’s definitely a growing repartee between the audience and Chance, and he begins to make more snide comments towards them during the set. This late performance starts out similarly to the first, but adds “Bedroom Athlete” and “Jaded”. The microphone breaks during “Jaded”, but is replaced quickly. The end of the closing number, “Throw Me Away” is particularly dissonant and harrowing.
Contortions, backstage at Max's Kansas City, early 1978. left to right:
George Scott, James Chance, Adele Bertei, James Nares, Pat Place, Chiko Hige.
photo by Patty Heffley
One might notice a really loud guy screaming “Yi yi yi yi!” between songs: this is a late local character Jim Brawley, or “Jim Tapes”. He recorded a lot of period gigs in the CBGB’s scene and apparently he made all this noise so his tapes would be useless for bootlegging(!) The whereabouts of his archives are unknown.


3.12.1978 – 66 E. 4th Street, New York, NY – X Magazine Benefit

1. Dish It Out   2. My Infatuation  3. Roving Eye  4. Twice Removed  5. Throw Me Away  6. Bedroom Athlete  7. Jaded  8. Contort Yourself

James Chance (voc, as), James Nares (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), Adele Bertei (organ), George Scott (bass), Steve Moses (drums) with Robert Quine (guitar) on 8

The Contortions appeared here headlining a benefit show for local publication X Magazine, a print vehicle sponsored by the independent film organization Colab. The other groups on the bill were Boris Policeband, Erasers, DNA, Theoretical Girls and Terminal: a strong cross-section of groups who, except for old-school punks Erasers, would represent different aspects of the embryonic No Wave aesthetic. Chiko Hige is clearly gone at this point and my educated guess is that the drummer here is Steve Moses. Moses played in a free-jazz oriented trio with James Chance and David Hofstra (who replaced George Scott during the “BUY” sessions) called Flaming Youth and then jammed with an early Contortions incarnation predating the group’s live debut. His style doesn’t really jibe well with the aggressive musical agenda of the band and he seems to drag everything down in terms of tempo and feel. The band opened the show with “Dish It Out” immediately following James chewing the audience out for sitting on the floor. Moses’ drumming has a lazy, half-time feel, but otherwise the arrangement is the same as usual. George Scott was not playing terribly strong bass  at this point and his sound is extremely muddy here. The arrangement of “My Infatuation” suffers from more weak drumming. Luckily “Roving Eye” picks up the overall pace and has the thrust of the past performances. “Twice Removed” begins typically, but turns into a bit of a trainwreck during the middle section, due to under-rehearsed drumming. The momentum of the performance really takes a dive on “Throw Me Away”. It is performed too slowly, with inappropriately complicated drumming, and James tries to scat-sing some life into it before launching into his regular verses. After two minutes, the song collapses before picking back up again for a saxophone solo. This show is documented as one of the first where James Chance physically antagonized audience members, so maybe that’s what is happening during the dead air? After another minute, the song grinds to a halt again and there’s a lot of talking in the audience. Soon the band tries to play the song again and Chance tells them on-mic to “speed it up.” “Jaded” follows but it too fizzles out after George Scott’s amplifier breaks down. After an awkward minute the bass amp comes back on and the band finishes the song.  It seems like Robert Quine might be sitting in on this song, as there’s some particularly wiry, interesting guitar playing on the version which sounds very unlike James Nares’ style. Quine is definitely audible jamming away on the closing “Contort Yourself”, begun at the same plodding tempo as the 2.4.1978 CBGB’s sets. The drumming is unsupportive at first but gets more firey and inventive around the 2:00 mark when Moses finally bothers to play a concrete backbeat. Although the pace picks up somewhat, the band is sloppy and sounding long in the tooth before the song finally implodes. The crowd has a very positive response at the end of the set though . . . Although definitely not the finest Contortions performance quality-wise,  this event was a pivotal one for the no-wave scene in general. Another important aspect of this occasion was the meeting of James Chance and the woman who would quickly become his companion and manager: Anya Phillips. Phillips was a Chinese-American scenester connected with X Magazine who also worked as a dominatrix. She would help mould Chance’s image as well as sowing the seeds of discontent which would eventually break the original Contortions line-up apart.


4.14.1978 – CBGBs, New York, NY

1. Dish It Out   2. My Infatuation  3. Roving Eye  4. Twice Removed  5. Throw Me Away  6. Flip Your Face  7. Jaded  8. Contort Yourself

James Chance (voc, as), James Nares (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), Adele Bertei (organ), George Scott (bass), Steve Moses (drums)

Contortions live 4.14.1978 opening for the Cramps.
left to right: James Chance, Adele Bertei, Stephen Moses,
Lydia Lunch (sitting), Pat Place. photo by Alain Dister
After a possible show at CBGB’s on 4.9.1978 (not confirmed), the Contortions share a bill with The Cramps on 4.14.78. The Cramps debut 7” was released in April 1978 and may have been available at this gig. The band opens with a version of  “Dish It Out” which fares better than the X Mag one. Steve Moses sounds much more comfortable in his role here. The excellent sound at CBGB’s helps bring all the players into better focus on this recording. “My Infatuation” is competent and performed in a manner more typical for the song than it had been the benefit show. The loud rhythm guitar and straight- ahead backbeat on “Roving Eye” makes it sound more like a rockabilly song(!) than it ever would again. “Twice Removed” receives a typical performance, as does “Throw Me Away” and “Jaded”. “Flip Your Face”, immortalized on “No New York” makes a first appearance here, with splashier drums and a darker sounding variation of the main guitar lick. An uptempo take on “Contort Yourself” closes things out.


5.4.1978 – CBGBs, New York, NY
Johnny Blitz Benefit Show 

1. Dish It Out   2. My Infatuation  3. Roving Eye  4. Twice Removed  5. Jailhouse Rock  6.  Jaded  7. Contort Yourself

James Chance (voc, as), Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), Adele Bertei (organ), George Scott (bass), Don Christensen (drums)

After at least one other gig – 4.24.1978 with Mars at Max’s Kansas City -The Contortions appeared on a bill also featuring the Ramones, Sic Fucks, Stilettos, Erasers, Corpse Grinders and Spicy Bits, in a benefit concert for Dead Boys’ drummer Johnny Blitz who was hospitalized after a stabbing. This was the first of four nights total during the run of benefit shows. It’s clear that the personnel has changed. Jody Harris’ guitar is somewhat smoother sounding than James Nares and Don Christensen’s crisp, no-nonsense drumming drives the band nicely, although he is not quite as brutal as Chiko Hige. Harris and Christensen both played in an R&B flavored bar band called Loose Screws (with David Hofstra) before joining the Contortions. Harris was also in a very early incarnation of Mars and had a brief stint with ur-critic Lester Bangs’ band. It is unclear whether or not Harris and Christensen both joined the band at the exact same time. One of them may have joined after the other. It is unclear and neither musician seems to remember the chronology exactly.

Lean performances of “Dish It Out” and “My Infatuation” open the set. A very fast “Roving Eye” returns again to its tumbling jungle-drum form and Harris adds some twangy vibrato-bar licks to the middle section. “Twice Removed” also receives an uptempo, clean reading featuring the most effective execution of the fragmented middle section so far. This is the sound of what many consider the definitive early Contortions line-up beginning to cook. For some reason, Kristian Hoffman of Mumps and Bradly Field of Teenage Jesus are introduced before a hilarious cover of “Jailhouse Rock”.  My wild guess is that they were probably dancing on stage or something . . . although the picture below was definitely taken at CBGB's and it has Hoffman on guitar and an obscured (possibly) Field on organ. “Jaded” is lead by the metronomic, but out-of-tempo organ clusters of Adele Bertei, lending an even more macabre edge to the piece than ever before. Jody Harris’ echo-y guitar improvisation also creates more depth than usual on this song. After a false count-off, the band ends this succinct set with “Contort Yourself”, which is starting to resemble the “BUY” version, thanks to Don Christensen’s tight drum patterns. Bertei’s noisy organ glissandos add an extra layer of ambush to the proceedings. The following evening, The Contortions would split a bill with DNA at one of the five Artists Space festival shows which lead directly to their inclusion on the Brian Eno produced anthology “No New York” (1978, Antilles Records).

This photo might be from the Johnny Blitz Benefit show on 5.4.1978
left to right: Bradly Field(?), Jody Harris, Don Christensen, James Chance, Pat Place (sitting), Kristian Hoffman
photo by Eugene Merinov


Next up, part THREE: Contortions play Artists Space Festival and Eno produces "No New York" . . .

This text was written by Weasel Walter, all rights reserved 2011.
If you use this for any reason, please credit the source fairly.

Early History of The Contortions #3 (May 78-Oct 78)

Early History of The Contortions #1 (Introduction)


Anonymous said...

The James Brawley tape collection seems to be available @ the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum | Library and Archives - >http://catalog.rockhall.com/catalog/ARC-0045

the Grape said...

I always thought his yelping was just how he enjoyed seeing live music.
He brought his gear in an attache case and carried a cane.
I recorded a lot of shows, but didn't yelp.
Some of my tapes are shared on dimeadozen

the Grape said...

is the X Benefit show from my tape?